Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

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June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem

I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish.  One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we?  I think, pretty badly.

A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality.  It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded.  It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter.  I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.

But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one.  That’s true.  We don’t.  But what if we did?  What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?

Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split?  You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.?  In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?

What if we voted on doctrinal standards?  What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?”  Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions.  (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to.  Let’s just try the thought experiment.)

How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…”  Yea?  Nay?

Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?  What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal?  And why does it matter?

My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt.  My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.

Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on.  We intentionally made the group diverse.  After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point.  We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning.  But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2.  To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it.  But some didn’t.  In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”

We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.

I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications.  Our theological convictions show us what we care about.  If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.

I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sex Talk at General Conference

This is the week at General Conference when things start to get really hot, as the controversial votes come to the floor of plenary session.  The topic of homosexuality will grab the headlines again and, though I understand why, I wish we were talking about other sexual matters, too.

Anyone working with young adults in the church (and in higher education) should take the time to read Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, (Oxford U Press, 2011).  The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling.  And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book.  While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed.  Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex?  Yes.

I won’t take the time to do a full review of the book, but let me make a couple of observations.  First, our stereotype of the “hookup culture” needs modification.  Most young people having sex are doing so within exclusive relationships.  Of course, as the authors show, people do hook up and there is plenty of casual sex going on (more among young people not in college than in college – one of the possible surprises that doesn’t fit the stereotype about college).  But, as the book shows, people in romantic relationships have much more sex than people not in a relationship.  

The problem is that the relationships don’t last.  Hence, the phenomenon known as “serial monogamy.”  (Gosh, where did they learn this one?)  Emerging adults are postponing marriage precisely because they value it.  But they don’t connect sex to marriage any more.  So, they get into a romantic relationship and most start having sex early.  (Ironically, sexually active young people find it far more easy to engage in sexual intimacy than to have an intimate, non-sexual conversation.)  Since most of them are not ready to settle down and commit to one another for life, they fatalistically assume that the relationship will end.  There is a psychological, spiritual cost to this practice!  

The most important and sobering generalization of Premarital Sex in America shines light on the moral norming that takes place among emerging adults.  Although the book makes reference to moral norms, it often describes these norms in terms of “scripts” that young people believe and live.  

Precisely here is why the church should start paying more attention.  We use words like “peer pressure” and we don’t notice the moral character of peer pressure.  We simply do not recognize that college students form moral communities.  They learn from each other, often through social networking media, television and the movies.  (When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie involving romance that did not have the main characters having sex practically almost to start the relationship?)   They learn from these sources and not from their church communities what is expected in romantic relationships.  Therefore, their choices are not as free as they think and have been told.  They are being shaped by a moral community.  

The last chapter of the book summarizes 10 myths about sex.  I can’t resist quoting some of them.  The first one is “Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.”  (Really?)  Second, “the introduction of sex is necessary in order to sustain a struggling or fledgling relationship.”  Fifth, “It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually; you make your own choices.”  Eighth, “Sex need not mean anything.”  (Wow, this is a doozy.  The book acknowledges that some people seem able to engage in “free love” without any serious side effects, but most people suffer.  This is one of the dirty little secrets about the myth of no-cost sexual expression in America.)  Finally, “Moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.”  No, it isn’t.  This is not the authors’ opinion.  It is empirical.  People who move in together before they get married do not usually go ahead and get married.  

There are bright spots in the book.  One of them is that students really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate.  Someday.  The problem is, by the time they get there, most of them will have a sexual history that will include significant amounts of pain and regret.  

We’ve been told again and again by a thousand different means that it’s none of our business; that it’s none of the church’s business. How dare we try to impose our Christian morality on the young?  But someone’s morality is being imposed.  And it is not good.  Just open your eyes and look around.    

I know General Conference must address the issues that people present to it.  I know that various questions related to homosexuality will get the lion’s share of attention this week.  I also know that we are entirely failing our young with regard to the kind of sex that most of them are having.  I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy.  I’m just begging for us to pay more attention.  

 

April 30, 2012 Posted by | Religion | , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Denominational Duct Tape?

The current debate over United Methodist constitutional amendments reminds me of a standard joke in the rural State where I live.  Farmers quip about holding things together with bailing wire and duct tape.   Throw in a pair of pliers and you’ve got a farmer well-equpped to keep any piece of machinery running awhile longer.  

Our United Methodist structures are starting to look more like bailing wire and duct tape all the time.   They’ll hold the denominational machinery together, and we’ll keep sputtering along for another season.  But the wise old farmer knows that the thing is going to wear out and quit eventually.  

The talk about denominational unity symbolized by the current General Conference structure is unconvincing to me.  Yes, I watched Maxie Dunnam’s YouTube appeal.  I have loads of respect for Maxie.  If my ministry could be half as fruitful as his, I’d feel like I’d done something.  I also admire and respect Eddie Fox and I’ve read his comments about the implications of going to this new structure.  But in the end, I really cannot see how having a global super-structure with regional conferences  is all that bothersome.   

Does the current General Conference demonstrate any sort of denominational unity?  I have witnesssed the appearance of deep suspicions between, say, delegates from New England and delegates from North Georgia, over proportional representation.  I’d be hard-pressed to say with a straight face that, with what I saw, those people actually felt like they’re truly part of the same team working for the same ends.  I heard the tongue-lashing we got for not voting the right way on church membership at the most recent General Conference.  We are not unified and never have been (remember 1844?), since maybe 1784.  Remember, we began arguing over slavery very early on.  

I think I believe that the constitutional amendments, then, are proper and good.  They attempt to reflect the global nature of the UM Church.  To be sure, we Americans at regional conference would lose the voice of the Africans and Latin Americans and Asians and Europeans and that loss would be sad for us.  But their representation at the new General Conference level would be more proportional to the way United Methodism actually is.  And that would be a good thing, no?  

But notice, any position you take on this matter, we’re still talking about structure, not actual mission.  We’re talking about control of an organization.   I don’t mean to trivialize anything, but I have to admit, it sounds like we’re talking about bailing wire and duct tape.

In the end, then, I don’t see how voting for or against the constitutional amendments is going to matter one whit in helping to renew a dying American United Methodism.  (See my post,  “In a Sea of Gray Hair.”)  It just means that the power center will shift at the general level to non-American countries, as it should.  

Please remember: I’m still not suggesting an end to our denomination.  I’m suggesting we quit worrying so much about structure and figure out how to be the Body of Christ on the ground where most people actually live.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 6 Comments